“Rice is great if you’re hungry and want 2000 of something.” – Mitch Hedburg
A few weeks before GenCon 2010, I read on the AEG forums (Alderac Entertainment Group, for those not in the know) that AEG would be donating some of its precious demo space to an independent game designer to help him get his game some attention. The game seemed quirky and interesting, and I made a mental note to check in with him at some point over the weekend to see the game in action. This was also my first time working at GenCon, and I didn’t have a firm grasp on just how busy this would keep me. I did manage to meet the designer and talk to his about his game for a few minutes before he had to pack up and rush off to catch a plane. He was really truly doing this from scratch. He was only taking pre-orders for the game, and from what I recall of our conversation, he was using the money from the pre-orders to produce the game and ship it to the people who bought it. Wow. Think about that concept and then add to it that in order for his game to thrive, he would really have to be present at all of the major conventions, and probably innumerable smaller conventions and game stores to market his game, which makes a day job, social life and even family all difficult balls to juggle. All together, this project was a big gamble on following a dream. From my (albeit limited) understanding, his gamble has paid off, his game has been picked up by Z-Man Games to be released this year (I think), which will make my version of the game a bit of a collector’s item. But enough of this, let’s talk about the game.
Wok Star has to be one of the single most interesting game designs I’ve ever seen. In essence, it is a cooperative resource management game. Kinda like Battlestar Galactica, without all of the genocide, paranoia and traitorous robots. In Wok Star, the players have opened a Chinese restaurant and have to pay off their business loan in 6 turns or be forced to close. Here’s a brief run-down of how the game works.
Players will be assigned Recipes, which they will be responsible for making when the order comes up. Each recipe has 2 or more ingredients that are deducted from a common pool. Inventory of these ingredients is also managed by the players. Early in the game, the players are only responsible for a few simple recipes, each of which has 2 or 3 different ingredients, so it starts off relatively easy, or so one would think. Everything in the game moves on a duo of 20 second hourglass timers. When the first customer card is flipped and someone orders Wonton Soup, the timer is flipped. You spend an Egg Roll Wrapper and a Chicken Broth, the customer is satisfied, you collect their money, you flip another card and another timer. This person wants Hot and Sour Soup. You spend your Mushrooms and Peppers, and you find you’re out of Chicken Broth from the last customer. More Chicken Broth has to be made, and the sands are quickly slipping away. You come up with that soup fast, or they are eating for free, potentially giving you bad publicity…and then another card and timer are flipped. Some time later, the last customer pays their bill and you flip the “Open” sign off with no small amount of desperation. Nervously sharing concerned looks with the other players, you count up the day’s take. You realize that there is simply no way you are going to be able to keep the business open with that little money. The only solution to this is to make more money. The only way to make more money is to have more customers. The only way to get more customers is to advertise (mechanically speaking adds more people ordering the same things to the customer deck) or to introduce new, more expensive dishes. It goes without saying that the more expensive dishes have a wider variety of ingredients, making them a bigger resource drain, and adding more things to keep track of. In this rare moment of peace, you restock ingredients and get ready to do it all over again.
The game’s stress levels start at “ridiculous” and scale up from there, which is a big draw for me and all of the people I have introduced the game to. By virtue of the base rules, each round has to be harder than the one that came before it if you are going to keep your business open. Event cards are added to the deck each round that create good and bad effects at random times. Wok Star combines a necessity for planning with a healthy dose of chaos (two great tastes that taste great together!) Unlike some other co-ops, like Arkham Horror, where everyone is ultimately working towards the same goal through individual play, in Wok Star, the team thrives or falters almost strictly by their ability to work well (and quickly) together, which is something I love about the game. Once those timers flip, it’s all hands on deck until the day is over.
This said, there are some random elements (not many) I feel it important to mention, because there are a lot of people out there who hate all things random. Those random elements have, on very rare occasion, turned a victory into a loss, but happen so rarely that I don’t think it warrants worrying about. Another tiny issue I have with the game is the scalability. The more players you have, the more eyes, hands and brains you have working in tandem to keep things smooth. The game keeps approximately the same difficulty without regard to the number of players. 2 players might have a harder time than 4 players, but this is a minor quibble about a greatly enjoyable game.
Wok Star is not a game for the timid. If one of your regular gamers is more inclined to enjoy games where the bulk of their interactivity is limited to their turn, it might not be the game for them. All players need to be conscious of everything going on if you’re going to win.
Tim only had time for one round of the demo before he had to run, but that one round was more than enough to convince me to pre-order. Wok Star is another great game investment, and not like any other game I’ve ever played. It’s said that nine in ten new restaurants will close within their first year of business. The odds aren’t THAT bad in Wok Star, but winning this game is defintely something your game group can feel proud of.